Knowing the unknown: Information management in multiplayer settings

It it through the play against other agents that sessions of the greatest competition happens. When trying to accomplish opposing goals, the space between players within a game fighting against each, reacting to each other and trying to anticipate each other’s moves produces the clearest case of information management through a transactional dialogue structure.

Using the analogy of chess, competitions in gamespaces can be thought of as a list of responses between players in the form of call and response. Each player takes a turn, moves a piece and then watch the board while the other player reacts. The possibility space then of all moves is tied closely to the physicality of the board. The viable sentences constructed from the available verbs and nouns at any one moment is a function of the dialogue the came before it. The arrival of the players to that moment was a combination of actions chosen from possible paths and then manifested via a feedback cycle between them.

In this way, players can predict, to some degree, a variety of potential moves and anticipate certain outcomes. This is the where the mastery of the grammar of the game has the greatest effect. Without the knowledge of how objects can react, and what that might lead to, the player is reduced to guessing at outcomes that may lead to undesirable outcomes. Knowing both a larger subset of responses, their contexts and a high level of mastery of the rules of the game is, therefore, a necessity for continued play within the game.

However, contextualizing the necessary reactions within a gamespace requires information about that game. In chess, such information is always present. The board contains the space and it is the players who construct the mental models of actions and counters before the pieces are moved. All nouns are presented in such a way that both players can see them at any one time.

The management of information in such settings is based in the known unknowns. Players can predict the moves of their opponent at any step in the process by examining the board and using their knowledge of the system. These projections are, like any move previous to it, tied to the physicality of the space. All information is always present, it is only a matter of processing it.

The fighting game genre is closely matched to this idea. Although the turn structure is replaced with real-time reactions, each player has access to the physicality of the space and must process what they are seeing in order to respond at any one moment. The health (or other statistic) of each player is a function of previous moves. As the session unfolds, the players exchange constructed sentences using their characters as the primary noun in relation the environment and other player(s). The known unknowns consist of how to react given the context and current rules.

A successful transaction between players manifests in visual feedback as a reduction in health, specialized animation or some on-screen cue. As the players converse, these clues mark the progress of the session and as an update to the information given to each player. It is through such metrics that each can, at a glance, determine both their own and their opponent’s likelihood of defeat.

First person shooters and many strategy games differ from this method. Information is withheld via a mechanic such as a “fog of war” or limited map visibility. These systems use the information asymmetry between players to create tension during the session. Players must pick responses not only in relation to the rules and their own mastery of the system, but also in a context of limited information.

This is the case of unknown unknowns and allows for risk management as part of the dialogue. Not only are players to guess given the information they have at any one moment, but these guesses have a greater likelihood of being wrong and prompting frantic moments of exchanges. Instead of the structured turn by turn basis, the players go through cycles of asynchronous and then synchronized behavior.

These cycles can, given the game, be prolonged or shortened given the rules of the session and the system in use. While some, like first person shooters in general, can be shorted be reducing the physical space of play, others can extend the sessions by using larger physical spaces and expanding the time between the cycles of synchronize reactions.

In both of these genres, visual feedback of successful transactions can be additionally withheld for an increase in the tension. As more game variables are placed in the unknown unknowns context, the players must contend with an expanded mental model of not only the physical space, as the information dictates, but also the number of projections of where the game might go next. This space is, at any one moment, in flux for the player and they must often use knowledge of previous sessions within that system combined with information as it becomes available.

In multiplayer spaces, information management is the key to achieve any goal. Being able to perceive, process and then act on such information is the only way to accomplish this. Mastery of the grammar, and thus the ability to project certain outcomes given the current context and previous transactions, is a necessity for successful navigation of the exchanges and continued movement through the gamespace.